By Alicia Stemper/Vitamin O
“Happy Art Day!” is the greeting Sarah Cornette gives students when they arrive at the Mary Scroggs Elementary School art studio. Visitors are greeted with a brochure. The choice-based arts education here is so different, adults need help making sense of what they are seeing.
Every aspect of the studio supports “design thinking.” Cornette believes “every kid is creating a perfect reflection of who they are in every artwork.” Ceiling tiles showcase student creations and depict steps in the artistic process. Cornette helps students understand struggle as normal. A chart depicts the emotional journey of creating anything great – it includes a bridge across the Black Swamp of Despair.
All aspects of the studio can be used independently; the goal is to capture and maintain passion. Cornette’s methods have virtually eliminated behavior problems. Her goal is simple. “I want them to leave school as competent creators. Art is a language they have a right to.” Fellow Scroggs teacher Ms. Stang has supervised Ms. Cornette’s classroom. “I was blown away by how well it ran without her even being there. It was incredible to watch.”
Cornette stresses, “What I am NOT doing is teaching a recipe for art that looks good to adults.” She has “absolute faith that all of these kids are going to work through the stages and skills of each medium if they have enough time and space.” She does not tell students when their art projects are complete – they decide. Artists work on different projects, with different materials exploring different concepts in the carefully designed space, allowing over 500 artists a week to create, learn, and explore. Collaboration is encouraged, time for silent work is provided, and even clean-up time is student led and competently accomplished.
“Where I am From” is the current WOW project (wonderful original work). Ryan (blue shirt) worked in clay, shaping a large block into a house and a smaller piece into a person. Kaley (with feather) studied the structure of a bird feather and worked with small models of bald eagles – a metaphor for herself as an American. And Vivian (not pictured) chose found materials and construction paper to sculpt a 3D model of her bedroom, noting that any attempt to build her whole apartment building would overwhelm her.
Cornette finds choice-based art education is “the most interesting and inspiring way for me to teach.” It all starts with a “faith and trust that each kid is going to make what they need to make and what is perfect and appropriate that day.”